Enter the Social Media Mindset

| by Justin

When social media games became the Cinderella story of the games industry, it caused quite a stir among the top players in the industry. From EA laying off 1500 employees while acquiring Playfish for $300 million to Zynga’s recent valuation of over $5 billion dollars, this new genre has created more controversy and has been more disruptive than most people would have believed a few years ago. But how have these small scale, fairly low-tech games taken such a commanding presence in the games industry? What makes these social games different? How do I make a successful social game? To answer these questions you need to Enter the Social Media Mindset.

What is a mindset? It’s a way of thinking- in this context, a way of thinking about how you develop, grow, and monetize your game. It’s how you think about your customers- both paying and non-paying. It’s how you think about your development team, your studio, your entire business plan. What does it take to make a successful social game? Although this genre is still in its infancy, a few trends have already been established by some of the top players.

1. You are Always Iterating
Social games uses post-launch development at the very core of its’ business model. You are always, always, always iterating. Its not uncommon to push multiple builds a week- sometimes pushing multiple times a day. Once you set it up, it’s actually not that hard- the web development community has been doing this for years.

There are tons of reasons to deploy: Fix bugs, make enhancements to features, implement new features, implement back-end optimizations that players don’t even see. The easier it is to deploy, the more agile you will be, and social games are all about being able to respond quickly and easily.

If done correctly, continuous deployment will become core to your business, and will allow you to start experimenting with your game without the pain points.

2. Data Rules All
Once you can easily deploy, you have to know what to deploy. In order to know what you want to deploy, you have know what your users are doing. You do this using metrics. Ridiculous amount of metrics. The more data the better.

I cannot stress how important this is. Every decision you make about your game is based on Data. In the games of yesteryear, design is ruled by intuition and/or experience. You’ve heard it before: “On my last game we did this and it was really cool” or “You should make it purple, people love the colour purple” or “People are saying the Puppy Collection is really popular, lets raise the price by X%”. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who are really good at this, who have a good idea of what’s popular and what people want. The only problem is, its not exact. More people are going to get it wrong than those who are going to get it right.

However, if you base your decisions on Data, you take the guesswork out of the decision-making process. If you measure everything in your game, you have the numbers to back up your decisions. If you have the numbers to back up decisions, it makes it much easier to defend the change (to stakeholders, fans, etc). Instead of going off what the vocal minority are saying, you actually have the numbers to back up your intuition. In other words, instead of saying “People are saying the Puppy Collection is really popular” you will be saying “the Puppy Collection outsold other collections by 13.7% over the holidays!” If you can say that, you can justify to investors why making more Puppies is a good idea.

3. Designed to Monetize
One of the biggest problem I see when wading through the glut of social/casual games is that the game is not specifically designed to monetize. Since the recession, it’s fair to say that making a good game is not enough anymore. You have to make a game that is going to support itself, if not make you a little profit. A lot of the games you will see try to tack on some money hooks post launch, if those hooks exist in the game at all. To be profitable, however, you need to design the game to make money from the very beginning.

Monetization is the holy grail for game developers, and it also happens to be the trickiest things to do successfully in a social game. A virtual economy has to be built in your game from the ground up, from the very beginning. You are not relying on Week One sales, as AAA game business model calls for. Instead, you have hooks that allow players to pay- as your game gets more popular and starts getting that critical mass, the amount of people paying increases as well.

The kind of games that have become profitable usually have multiple forms of currency, some of which can be purchased for real money. People will generally invest money to enable them to advance in the game faster, for a scarce in-game item, or for a way to customize/stand out from the rest of the user base. Do note that you can have things that hit all three of these points at the same time- a unique, rare item that makes you better/faster at the game, available as a one-month grind, or five dollars cash money. You could look at it as trading time for money.

Wrapping Up
Entering the social media mindset, once done, can strike a fine balance between the low cost associated with indie development, while finding profitability in your game.  VancouverSocialGames.com is a blog dedicated to demystifying the theory of this explosive new area of game development, and spotlighting some of the regional up-and-coming players that will quickly become household names. Stay tuned to our articles, keep giving us feedback, and keep your creative genius flowing!

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